Strength to Represent

For my 7th birthday, my parents threw me a The Little Mermaid-themed pool party at the athletic club we belonged to. They went to the party store, bought all the decorations Disney made. I’m pretty sure I got the Ariel doll as a gift, but that memory is a little fuzzy. One memory that stands out? My birthday cake. (Note: Not my cake pictured, but for the reference point…)

Sheet cake featuring Ariel of The Little Mermaid with the writing: "Happy 4th Birthday Ava"
Photo Credit: Pinterest

My mom ordered a sheet cake from QFC in our very predominantly white suburb of Seattle. She gave very specific instructions:

We want a Little Mermaid cake that says ‘Happy Birthday Aisha,’ and the mermaid should be black.

 

According to my father, the simple request for a cartoon mermaid with chocolate frosting skin created great confusion at the chain grocery in the small town. But, as with all things, my parents made sure they got what they needed to make their baby feel seen, represented, and loved.

That’s the thing, though. Back in 1991, if parents of color wanted to celebrate special occasions with toys that reflected their family, they had to get creative and/or spend a lot of money to make that happen.

Split image of Disney's Ariel (a mermaid breeching out of water wearing purple clam-shell bra and resting on rock) re-imagined with African-American features on the left and actress Halle Bailey wearing sparkly black top on the right.
Photo Credit: People.com

With the announcement that incredibly talented young performer Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid, I am beyond elated. My parents’ makeshift request is becoming a reality. Every child should be able to see positive depictions of people (or mythical creatures) who share some, if not all of their features in the images that shape their identities.

Vintage Black Barbie doll wearing a red dress with exposed shoulders, gold embellishments, and matching red earrings.
Photo Credit: CNN.com

To that end, I would have been just as happy if they cast a South Asian, Latinx, trans, or nonbinary actor, or actor who uses a wheelchair or crutches to play Ariel. Because it takes more than a sheet cake and a choir of Black Barbie dolls to impact the way we see ourselves or the way others see us. When the highly influential media broadens its presentations to include all peoples, greater society is able to see through a larger scope what is possible, what is acceptable, and what is worthy of celebration.

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